The 10 Best Unproduced Comic Book Movie Scripts #1: George Romero’s ‘Copperhead’

Greetings all. BAADASSSSS! here with the first of a series of new articles I will be posting each week this summer: The 10 Best Unproduced Comic Book Movie Scripts!

If you haven’t checked out my bloated, nerdgasm of an introduction as well as a complete week-by-week breakdown of clues to each entry on this list you can do so here.

For the inaugural entry I have chosen a subject that is particularly special in that this movie that was never made was based on a comic book character that was created explicitly for the purpose of becoming a movie…that was never made. Once that didn’t happen the superhero faded into oblivion, leaving behind only the vague recollections of those involved in its making and ultimate unmaking along with some impressive concept art that gives us a pretty good notion of what might have been.

Copperhead Conquers the Warhawks by George Romero and Jim Shooter

In the decade that followed his 1968 horror classic debut Night of the Living Dead filmmaker George Romero‘s career foundered as he attempted to make a name for himself outside of movies about flesh-eating ghouls rising from the grave. He tried making films in different genres but his only real success was the haunting vampire story Martin. Two years later he scored his biggest critical and financial success to date with the highly anticipated sequel Dawn of the Dead, which became a worldwide box office smash and cemented his reputation as a young master of starkly hilarious apocalyptic horror.

Following the critically acclaimed cult film Knightriders Romero collaborated with best-selling horror writer Stephen King on his first major studio film, the anthology fright feature Creepshow, and once more had a surprise hit on his hands. Flushed with success Romero aimed to make his next movie the third entry in his epic zombie series Day of the Dead, but before that he teamed up with controversial Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter for a project that may possibly have forever altered the director’s career and added a fascinating chapter to the history of superheroes in cinema.

Romero and his producing partner Richard Rubinstein has looked into acquiring the rights to comic book characters for potential theatrical projects but found that doing so was quite a ways outside of what their finances would allow. Thus they decided to create their own superhero to star in a Marvel Comics title and subsequent film adaptation. Copperhead Conquers the Warhawks – or as it was known under its alternate title Mongrel: The Legend of Copperhead – was to be a co-production between Marvel and Romero and Rubinstein’s production company Lauren Entertainment, and had it gone before the cameras it would likely have been the most ambitious and expensive film Romero had ever made.

In an interview with the New York Times Romero said of the titular character, “The superhero character is the sheriff of Philadelphia in the not-too-distant future.” He promised that the script would be “a typical introduction of a superhero – how he came into his powers – and will take him through his first series of adventures. It will have some solid social values and a little social satire and there will be a lot of weaponry and vehicles.”

In 1984 Marvel writer and inker Bob Layton (Iron Man) was hired by Shooter to produce 48 pages of concept art for Copperhead with another Marvel staffer, artist Jackson “Butch” Guice (X-Factor), artwork that was intended to be later be turned into the comic adaptation of the film. In October 2005 Layton published a sample of their art on his personal blog.

Along with the artwork Layton elaborated further in his blog posting about the story Romero and Shooter had concocted for Copperhead, and how that story would have preceded a few notable classic sci-fi action movies:

“The working title of the film was “COPPERHEAD” and it was to be Romero’s foray into mainstream filmmaking. Jim and George, who were fellow hometown Pittsburgh, PA boys, put their heads together and came up with an ambitious story of love, betrayal and war set in a post-apocalyptic future. The title, “COPPERHEAD”, was derived from the color of the cyborg’s metal skull. Although my recollections of the actual storyline is sketchy (no script or plot synopsis has survived), the basic concept was about a soldier, transformed into a high-tech killer cyborg, who rebels from his fascist creators and leads a underground rebellion against them. This was basically RoboCop (with a little Deathlok thrown in) and the Terminator–before either of them ever existed.”

Layton also said of the unmade Copperhead movie, “It was to be Romero’s ‘Star Wars'” and was to be “a very ambitious project, with huge, sweeping visuals and massive SPX.”

The decision was made to put Copperhead on hold until after Romero had completed filming on Day of the Dead, which was forced to scale back its grander story ideas when the director was unable to secure a budget of more than $3.5 million for what was intended to be an unrated theatrical release. But Day‘s failure to pack in the gore-thirsty audiences at the box office the way its predecessor Dawn of the Dead had (though it would do much better internationally and on home video) convinced the honchos at Marvel that Romero would have greater difficulty raising the necessary budget to make Copperhead, which would have been substantially more than what he had to work with on Day.

Like a malnourished zombie Romero and Shooter’s multimedia superhero endeavor withered away from lack of interest, and little had been said or written about it until Layton began releasing the conceptual art and storyboards he created with Guice. It is very likely that a script was never even written, only a treatment and that has yet to surface online.

George Romero is one of the finest directorial minds of modern horror cinema, and that can never be challenged despite his increasingly mediocre output of recent years. His earlier zombie movies and Knightriders proved him to be quite adept at making entertaining genre films with energetic, well-shot action sequences and trenchant social commentary. With an ideal cast and the finest technicians and craftsmen collaborating with Romero Copperhead had limitless potential to be more than just an ordinary superhero action flick. Even if it had failed to live up to that promise it would have been, at the very least, one of those immortal cheeseball ’80s movies you can watch to this day on the big screen at the Alamo Drafthouse with a packed audience laughing and cheering along.

Here are some of those unused Copperhead storyboards by Layton and Guice. The scope of this sucker was huge. You can behold the rest in slack-jawed amazement right here.

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